No Start 1: Checking For Spark

If your Nissan is suffering a cranks but does not start condition, my suggestion to you is to start by checking the ignition system. Specifically, what this means is that you should check that all cylinders are getting spark.

Testing for spark can very easily and safely be done with a dedicated spark tester.

My suggestion, about testing for spark, applies whether your Nissan has a distributor-type ignition system or the more modern COP ignition coil system (in the Coil-On-Plug (COP) ignition coil system, you don't have a distributor anymore but 6 individual ignition coils sitting right on top of the spark plug).

If the ignition system is the cause of the no-start, you're not gonna' see spark at any of the 6 spark plug wires or 6 COP ignition coils. If there is spark being fed to all cylinders, then you can eliminate the ignition system as the cause of the no-start condition and can move on to other tests (like testing fuel pressure).

Remember, the idea behind checking for spark is to see if all of the engine cylinders are getting spark. Here are the most common causes of a no-spark result:

CASE 1: Spark was present in all cylinders. This is the correct and expected test result.

This result tells you three very important things:

  1. The crank sensor is functioning correctly.
  2. The ignition control module (also known as the igniter or power transistor) is OK -this applies to distributor-type systems.
  3. The ignition coil is good.

You don't have to spend any time testing them or any money replacing them.

Your next step is to verify fuel pressure. Go to: No Start 2: Checking Fuel.

CASE 2: Spark was NOT present in all of the cylinders (DISTRIBUTOR TYPE). This test result tells you without a doubt that the no-start condition of your Nissan is due to a malfunction in the ignition system.

Now, with no spark in any of the engine cylinders, this what I would suggest:

  1. Check for spark directly on the ignition coil tower using a spark tester.
    • This is the best way to test the distributor cap. The distributor cap and rotor are infamous for causing no-spark no-start conditions.
    • If you do get spark coming out of the ignition coil tower, you now know beyond a shadow of a doubt the distributor cap and rotor must be replaced.
  2. Test the ignition coil and ignition control module (also known as the: igniter or power transistor).
    • If no spark is firing from the ignition coil, then the next step is to verify that the ignition control (igniter) is activating it. This is a pretty simple test.
  3. The following tutorial will give you some specific testing tips: Power Transistor Test & Ignition Coil Test 3.3L Nissan (1996-2004) (at: easyautodiagnostics.com).

CASE 3: Spark was NOT present in all of the cylinders (COP IGNITION COIL TYPE). This test result tells you without a doubt that the no-start condition of your Nissan is due to a malfunction in the ignition system.

It's almost impossible for all 6 COP ignition coils to fail at the exact same time, so the most likely cause for this no-spark condition is a bad crankshaft position sensor.

No Start 2: Checking For Fuel

Checking that the fuel pump is delivering fuel to the fuel injectors is not that hard on your Nissan (since you're able to tap into the rubber fuel pressure hose that connects to the fuel injector rail with a fuel pressure gauge and its appropriate adapter).

A bad fuel pump will cause your Nissan to crank but not start since the fuel pump is the one responsible for supplying fuel to the fuel injectors.

The absolute best way to test the fuel pump is with a fuel pressure gauge, using any other method is not as accurate. Still, the other method that I've used to test for a lack of fuel is spraying starting fluid into the throttle body and then having a helper crank the engine. If the engine starts, then I now know that I need to take a closer look at the fuel pump to see if it's fried or not.

When testing the fuel pump (with a fuel pressure gauge), you'll usually see one of two results:

CASE 1: Fuel pressure is at specification. Not only does this result tell you that the fuel pump is OK but that the following components, that supply the fuel pump with power, are OK too:

  • Fuel pump fuse.
  • Fuel pump relay.

And so, there's no need to spend time testing them or money replacing them.

CASE 2: Fuel pressure is not present. This usually means that the pump has failed, but not always. I would recommend testing/checking the following before condemning the fuel pump:

  1. After verifying that no fuel pressure exists, check that the fuel pump is getting power by tapping into the power circuit that feeds the pump with 12 Volts with a multimeter.
  2. Once you're tapped in, have a helper crank the engine while you observe your multimeter in Volts DC mode. If voltage is present (12 Volts), then you have confirmed that the fuel pump fuse and fuel pump relay are working perfectly.
  3. Confirming power to the fuel pump (with a multimeter) also verifies that the fuel pump has failed and needs to be replaced.
  4. If no voltage is present, as your helper cranks the engine, then the cause of no-fuel condition is due to either a bad fuse, fuel pump relay (known as the Main Relay).

No Start 3: Checking Engine Mechanical Condition

One of the most overlooked areas, when testing a hard to diagnose no-start, is the mechanical condition of your 3.0L, 3.3L, 3.5L Nissan vehicle.

Checking the engine mechanical condition usually means making sure that the timing belt hasn't broken (if equipped with a timing belt). Also, you may need to do: an engine compression test, a blown head gasket test, among a few tests to make sure that an internal engine problem is not the root cause of the cranks but does not start condition your vehicle is experiencing.

Here are some specific tips:

  1. When performing an engine compression test, what you're looking for is an average compression reading of NO LESS THAN 120 PSI across all or the majority of the engine cylinders.
  2. If you have one or just two readings that are under 90 PSI your Nissan vehicle will still start and run, albeit with a misfire condition.
  3. The following tutorial will help you do a compression test:
  4. NOTE: A broken timing belt will cause all 6 cylinders to output 0 PSI compression.

Nissan Vehicles:

  • D21 3.0L
    • 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994
  • Frontier 3.3L
    • 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004
  • Maxima 3.0L
    • 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001

Nissan Vehicles:

  • Maxima 3.5L
    • 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006
  • Pathfinder 3.0L
    • 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995
  • Pathfinder 3.3L
    • 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000
  • Pathfinder 3.5L
    • 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004

Nissan Vehicles:

  • Quest 3.0L
    • 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998
  • Quest 3.3L
    • 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002
  • Quest 3.5L
    • 2004, 2005
  • Xterra 3.3L
    • 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004

Mercury Vehicles:

  • Villager 3.0L
    • 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998